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My fifth point is perhaps the most important. In seeking to remove one perceived discrimination between hon. Members, the SSRB is in danger of inserting another. Its report seeks to help those hon. Members with constituency offices outside the parliamentary estate, but in doing so it would cause serious harm and difficulty to those hon. Membersand especially to those London Memberswith offices and staff on the parliamentary estate. I suggest that, instead of removing one discrimination and creating another, the solution is to help the one category of hon. Member without harming the other.
That is why I shall support amendment (g). I believe that it offers an effective way of ensuring that we provide further support and assistance to those hon. Members with constituency-based offices so that they can run them properly and effectively.
The amendment makes sense, however, only if the incidental expenses provisions are left as they arenot enhanced and not abated. If the amendment is passed, I hope that will be the spirit in which the matter is approached. If it goes to the Members Estimate Committee, I hope that the Committee will take into account the concerns that I and many Members on both sides of the House have expressed.
Mr. Hain: With the shadow Leader of the House and some other Members, I am a member of the Committee, so perhaps I can offer my right hon. Friend some comfort by assuring him that we will certainly take close heed of the points that he and other Members have forcefully made.
Mr. Smith: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for saying that. I would have expected no less from such an exemplary Leader of the House, but I hope that these serious issues will be considered carefully and that the rather simplistic approach that the review body proposesalbeit to achieve a sensible and fair purposewill not be seen as the right way forward.
Mr. Mark Field: I am aware that many Members want to speak, so rather than make a speech myself I endorse all that the right hon. Gentleman said about the concerns of London Members. All too often, Members with country seats, perhaps especially in my party, do not understand the burdens to which he referred. In my constituency, which is very like his, there are not only 70,000 electors but 40,000 non-UK nationals. I have 600 live asylum and immigration cases, which puts an intolerable burden not so much on me but on the large number of staff I am required to employ. I endorse the right hon. Gentleman's remarks, as well as those of the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), who spoke forcefully on the matter earlier.
On this occasion, my right hon. Friend speaks, as ever, for London, but is he as bemused as I am at a circumstance in which a review body on senior salaries appears to be concerning itself with staff deployment? If there is a problem with staff in the House, should not that be considered in isolation, rather than being spatchcocked into the SSRB report, which will have the most disastrous consequences for people such as my right hon. Friend and me who do not have a constituency office but try to give constituents the best possible service from an office in the Palace?
Mr. Smith: I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I am sorry that amendment (d) was not selected, as that would have enabled the House as a whole to give a clear indication of what we regard as a reasonable level for staff based in Westminster. That would not have taken account of the particular problems for London Members, but it would have enabled us to give a general view. As I am sure my hon. Friend will agree, Members, rather than the SSRB, must ultimately decide these matters.
I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House and the Members Estimate Committee will take those points on board if and when they consider these matters. They are serious matters; they affect the standard and quality of the service that we give our constituents.
Sir Nicholas Winterton : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I seek your help? The debate has just over an hour to run, but Members whose amendments were selected have not yet made a contribution. Will you make a plea to Members to be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker? Otherwise, there will be no formal presentation of the amendments that Mr. Speaker selected?
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst):
I am not sure that it is exactly correct to say that hon. Members who tabled amendments have so far made no contribution to the debatethat is perhaps why the opening speech from the Leader of the House was so
3 Nov 2004 : Column 344
long. However, the hon. Gentleman correctly observes that there is a limited amount of time available, so the Chair will do its best to accommodate as many Members as possiblebut their comments must be brief.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): I am delighted to follow the right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith). I listened to him with great care and agree with every word he said. I am not a member of the Members Estimate Committee but I hope that it has taken seriously the issues he raised. I have a particular point of agreement with him, as I, too, can declare a non-interest in most of the matters before us, because I am due to retire at the next general election, which looks as though it will be sooner rather than later.
I want to refer to the principles behind the SSRB report. I accept that it is vital to preserve the principle that our package of remuneration and reimbursement of costs is assessed by an external, independent, authoritative body, just as monitoring and authenticating it is in the hands of rigorous auditing arrangements in the House. However, an equally important principle is that the body must have access to the fullest possible information about the work of parliamentarians. It has become increasingly apparent this afternoon that the SSRB has not been operating on the basis of intelligent analysis of the real work of parliamentarians. Indeed, it has, to a considerable extent, misunderstood the work we do in this place.
The emphasis of the report, especially the elaborate and convoluted section on office costs and the salaries of our staff, seems to suggest that MPs must be encouraged to concentrate our work in our constituencies. We are already under attack for neglecting our core role as parliamentariansas scrutineers of the Government's legislative programme and of Executive action. If anything were to encourage the media and the public to think of us as overpaid and under-trained social workers, it would be the recommendations of the report, which would push things in that direction. That is a basic misunderstanding of our role in this place.
Within obvious limits, I insist that every Member of the House has the right and responsibility to serve the country and their constituents in whatever way he or she thinks most effective and appropriate. That is critical to the way in which Parliament operates. I fear, as is already apparent from the comments of several Members, that the SSRB does not understand that that is our role.
Nick Harvey: The Leader of the House fairly made the point that Members had the opportunity to give evidence to the SSRB, but, if we were broadly content with things as they were, there was no incentive to do so; only now that we have seen what the SSRB proposes is there any reason for us to comment. Bodies such as the boundary commissions consult after they make their initial proposals. There is more concern about the current SSRB report than ever before, so we must consider the future and ensure that there is a second round of consultation on its proposals before they are signed off; otherwise, we shall be put in the embarrassing position of having to repudiate the recommendations, which we do not want to do.
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